A tiresome level of certainty

“Belief is the death of intelligence. As soon as one believes a doctrine of any sort, or assumes certitude, one stops thinking about that aspect of existence.” – Robert Anton Wilson

The on-going debate between a number of atheist intellectuals and their religious equivalents fills me with a large amount of disinterest. I haven’t gone so far as to read any of the books, whether by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens or any of the long list of respondents [there’s a good list here, but the page is a mess]. Life’s too short.

It’s not that I don’t regularly read about ideas, whether religious, philosophical or political, but the thing that’s bothered me about this whole debate is the tiresome level of certainty. Religious people have always been like that, but atheists sometimes have a tendency to become as bad in their own way. Atheism becomes less an absence of belief in God and more a belief in the absence of God.

“If you think you know what the hell is going on, you’re probably full of shit.” – Robert Anton Wilson.

The late Bob had it right – believe nothing, think about everything. We all exist inside reality tunnels made up of our beliefs and prejudices. The less we investigate and challenge the borders of our own reality tunnel, the more trapped by them we are.

“The Cosmic Schmuck law holds that [1] the more often you suspect you may be thinking or acting like a Cosmic Schmuck, the less of a Cosmic Schmuck you will become, year by year, and [2] if you never suspect you might think or act like a Cosmic Schmuck, you will remain a Cosmic Schmuck for life.” – Robert Anton Wilson.

It’s easy to attack the irrational, non-scientific beliefs of religious people, but that’s because they’re not supposed to make sense. Faith, belief, they’re all about taking a step beyond what is rational and scientific. Their certainty is rooted in doctrine, history and culture.

But what do the likes of Dawkins or Hitchens offer in return? Certainty that what we know now about the development life is true and that we already have all the answers. Given the pace of change in what we think about the universe and reality, what are the odds that Darwin got everything right?

Moving from biology to physics, it appears very unlikely. Once you start thinking about theories of 10 or 11-dimension reality in particle physics, the idea that we can be certain of anything while we’re trapped in our perception of a 3-dimensional world is ludicrous.

The idea of intelligent design is one worth thinking about, if you dump all of the pseudo-religious nonsense that underlies it – an agnostic theory of intelligent design, if you want to be provocative. This would be a theory that there are things, possibly intelligent, beyond our immediate perception that might have influenced the development of life on earth.

That doesn’t necessarily mean a god, goddess or pantheon; it could be a form of collective intelligence; it could be aliens – whether extra-terrestrial or extra-dimensional – it could be something else entirely that’s beyond our ability to conceive or imagine with the current limitations on our perceptions.

There are problems with the current theory of evolution. An example I like is that of an egg – or, more specifically, the diversity of an egg when cooked. You can fry it, boil it, poach it, scramble it or you can use it as part of probably millions of other dishes. In fact, eggs are more nearly twice as digestible when cooked than raw.

Of course, it could be a fluke result of evolution – that a common form of animal reproduction could have an important characteristic apparently unrelated to the development of the various species that produce eggs (not just birds, but also fish and, according to some, snakes and lizards). But it’s very hard to see how “producing zygotes that taste good and are nutritious when cooked in various ways” has any connection to natural selection. Something else could be going on.

Of course, that could well be completely fallacious, but the role of science is to ask questions and seek answers, not to come to conclusions. All swans are not white.

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Author: Donnacha DeLong

Originally from Dublin, Ireland, Donnacha DeLong is an NUJ activist, journalist and online communications consultant with more than 15 years' professional experience.

16 thoughts on “A tiresome level of certainty”

  1. I agree that the moment you stop asking questions is the moment you start to stagnate (or become a Cosmic Schmuck), but I disagree with parts of your post.

    As for the egg thing – the reason we find eggs nutritious is that they are basically pure food – they are “designed” (for want of a better word – “evolved” is correct, but doesn’t sound right) to feed a growing chicken.
    The same is true of nuts, seeds, etc. They are designed to sustain a growing plant until they have grown enough to have roots of their own.

    The collective intelligence argument is a dead end – it’s “god did it” in other words.

    I’m not sure why you think that atheism implies being certain that we have all the answers?

    Certainly, some atheists are as “fundamentalist” as the hardest Alabama born-again, but you can’t paint us all with the same brush.

    I, for example, do believe actively that there are no gods (very good point there, the difference between hard and soft atheism), but I am also aware of the fact that I cannot prove it, that I may be wrong, and that I do not /know/ everything. As an example, I do not /know/ that there are no gods – but I /believe/ there are none. This is almost similar to /believing/ that there are no socks under my couch, vs /knowing/.

    Intelligent design has a fundamental flaw – who designed the designer?

    Darwin’s evolution certainly does have flaws, but the theory has been worked on for more than 150 years since it has incepted. The “theory” of evolution has so much evidence backing it up, that to /not/ believe it seems either wilful mischievousness, or maybe it hasn’t been explained right.

    As for the 10/11 dimensions thing (needed in some forms of string theory) – that is /one/ interpretation of reality. There is no proof yet for string theory, an in fact, there is currently no way to test it at all.
    Scientists are aware of this (both theist and atheist), and work on that and other theories, in the hope that eventually one of them will fit the existing evidence better than the current best theories (relativity for large-scale things, and quantum theory for small-scale).

    personally, my favourite theory is quantum foam one, which I believe to be true.

    please don’t get me wrong – I am not claiming to “know” these things. I know a little of each viewpoint, and like to think my beliefs are based on understanding, instead of dogma.

    Dawkins’ book The God Delusion is, in my opinion, awful. I’ve read it (in fact, I was rereading some of it earlier today), and I think he makes a lot of sense, but the way he writes is to treat every theory other than his own utterly scornfully.
    He makes out that anyone that’s not an absolutist atheist like himself is an idiot.

    meh – either someone is right, or everyone’s wrong – it doesn’t matter. in the end, we all die.

  2. Hi Kae, I was careful to use the word “sometimes” as I didn’t mean to tar every atheist with the same brush. This is a reaction piece, specifically to Dawkins and the ever-dogmatic (if inconsistent) Chris Hitchens.

    I must point out that you’ve kind of missed my argument about eggs. As you point out, the nutritional value of eggs is very easy to explain. I accept that completely. What’s interesting is their diverse usefulness in cooking – obviously something that came after the evolution of eggs suitable for human digestion (though, I do wonder if you could make a dinosaur egg omlette!)

    Cooking makes them easier to digest, but that’s normal as cooking improves the digestibility of most food, improves the taste (ditto), but the interesting thing is how many different ways you can cook them and get very different effects. There is no clear evolutionary reason for this – is there? It could be just a quirk or a happy coincidence, or there could be something else going on.

    As for the question of collective intelligence, it really depends on the way you look at it. I don’t agree it’s necessarily a dead end as any idea can have interesting effects on research and thought. Also, there’s a big difference between the Gaia Hypothesis and the covert creationism of some other ideas.

    As for “who designed the designer”, that’s only a problem if you’re a deist! If you believe we’re the pinnacle of creation and the only thing above us is God, then it’s just creationism by another name. However, the idea that something could have influenced human development does not necessarily presuppose that that “something” is a supreme being.

    “So long and thanks for all the fish” – http://www.youtube.com/watch?gl=GB&v=ojydNb3Lrrs , if you like 😉

  3. The problem with your egg question is that you can apply the same thing to almost anything we eat. It is interesting how many different things you can do with milk. It is interesting how many different things you can do with a chicken breast. What you’re really saying is that it is interesting we can cook.

    And the fact that an egg can be useful in human cooking need not have anything to do with evolution. It certainly isn’t a problem for evolution. However, it doesn’t need to explain how an egg can be so useful in cooking. We can only cook what is available to us, and it isn’t surprising that an egg being available to us means that we experimented with it to see what else it could do. If an egg wasn’t available, then we wouldn’t be able to make an omlette, but we’d eat something else instead. Evolution needs to explain some part of this: why the egg is nutritious (explained above by Kae Verens), why humans cook and why humans have the intelligence to create recipes. (Think of it another way: there are plenty of things poisonous to humans that we can’t eat, and if the world was designed for humans why would that be?) Your egg example can be applied to almost anything: it is interesting wood is so useful, it is interesting sheep are so useful (in cooking and in textiles). Really, it just boils down to one thing: humans are able to exploit the tools they have available.

    You don’t understand what Dawkins and Hitchens say at all. They do no offer certainty. Organised religion offers certainty, it is unchanging. Science is not unchanging. We do not say we have all the answers, which is why science exists. We do not have all the answers about evolution. Scientists still study evolution. I study evolution. Evolution is a fact, but the details are still interesting and important to study, and we do not claim to know everything. Why do you think we still study it if we claim to have all the answers?

  4. Also I would like to say: generally scientists are very keen to engage and teach. Although I hope I have rebutted your statement about the egg, that isn’t me suggesting you shouldn’t have mentioned it – questioning things is good.

  5. Sorry Lisa, but you haven’t refuted anything, you’ve just given a possible explanation. This question is beyond the ability of science to prove one way or another.

    Your examples – wood and sheep – aren’t actually good examples. Wood is easy to explain – its strength is its main use and that is intrinsic in the nature of a tree. It needs to hold itself up, so it can be used to make furniture, etc, that need to be held up. Its convenience as a fuel is due to its organic nature – all organics burn when dried.

    Sheep – their use as food is common to all animals, so nothing special. The textile use, well wool has a clear use for sheep when its on them, so its use in a modified state is nothing odd (ditto goats hair, skins, furs, etc).

    My point about eggs was about the non-intrinsic usefulness of an egg in human cooking. It’s not just omlettes, its how eggs are incredibly useful in loads of kinds of cooking – as a binding agent, for example, that has no usefulness to a hen.

    However, my fundamental point is that we don’t really know. It is scientifically correct to point to evolutionary theory as the best way we currently have to explain what exists. However, it remains falsifiable.

  6. The whole point is that evolution is falsifiable, whereas creationism isn’t. That’s what makes evolution science. Your statement about the egg doesn’t falsify evolution. My problem with what you are saying is that you are saying creationism is an alternate to evolution, despite offering no evidence at all that it is an alternative. Even if evolution is proved to be false, that doesn’t mean creationism is true.

    ‘ This would be a theory that there are things, possibly intelligent, beyond our immediate perception that might have influenced the development of life on earth.’ – Evolution being false would not make this statement more true. What exactly is falsifiable about that statement?

    What I worry about is that people take a dogmatic position, deciding that they do not think evolution is a fact, and will then cling to it despite all evidence to the contrary. Science is not like this. For example, originally we thought that humans did not mate with neanderthals. There is now more evidence suggesting that we did mate with neanderthals. Scientists do not cling to the original supposition if more evidence becomes available. The same would happen with evolution.

    So, since you want more detail about the egg, here we go:

    My reference for this is McGee on Food & Cooking, An Encyclopaedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture. I am giving you one example of how a property of an egg is useful to the developing chick, and also useful in a different way to humans. This section on eggs in the book also gives other examples if you are interested.

    A protein in the egg white: Ovotransferrin:
    ‘Ovotransferrin holds tightly onto iron atoms to prevent bacteria from using them, and to transport iron in the developing chick’s body. It is the first protein to coagulate when an egg is heated, and so determines the temperature which eggs set. The setting temperature is higher for whole eggs than fr egg white, because ovotransferrin becomes more stable and resistant to coagulation when it binds the abundant iron in the yolk…

    Cut to a later section of the book about this protein:

    ‘Egg white begins to thicken at 63C and becomes a tender solid when it reaches 65C. This solidification is due mainly to the most heat-sensitive protein, ovotransferrin, even though it’s only 12% of the total protein’.

    And cut again to a section explaining about whipping eggs and how this happens:
    …the key to the stable egg foam is the tendency of the proteins to unfold and bond to each other when they’re subjected to physical stress…
    Whipping exerts two kinds of physical stress on the proteins…
    And second, because water and air are very different physical environments, the simple mixing of air into the whites creates an imbalance of forces that also tugs the proteins out of their usual folded shape. All these unfolded proteins (mainly the globulins and ovotransferrin) tend to father where air and water meet, with their water-loving portions immersed in the liquid and their water-avoiding portions projecting into the air. Thus disturbed and concentrated, they readily form bonds with each other. So a continuous, solid network of protein pervades the bubble walls, holding both water and air in place’

    I hope I have shown to you in this example that how a protein which is beneficial to a chick can also be beneficial to humans in cooking. Any typos above are mine since I’ve copied this out of the book.

    A little bit of research can get you far, are you making your assertion on the egg because you had done careful research on the subject or because you had assumed it to be true? The theory of evolution is based on mountains and mountains of fact, and any objection you can make to it can either be refuted or if not then scientists will take it seriously and investigate.

  7. Also I hope you can see that the example of the egg is no different to wood. An egg has intrinsic properties which makes it useful to the developing chick, which in turn humans have used. The only difference is that for the egg it is at the molecular level, so it can’t be seen with the eye like with wood

  8. I don’t understand how you can think that either I support or am arguing for creationism as its currently understood or have assumed anything is true about what I was saying about eggs when I’ve clearly stated that I’m not certain about anything and being deliberately provocative (I even said that the whole thing could be fallacious).

    To be fair, you’re arguing from a completely different point of view to me. You’re arguing from the absolutely correct scientific point of view, which I completely support. My argument is basically with the philosophers of science (in which category I’d place Hitchens and Dawkins when they are attempting to argue about religion using science) and my response echoes Feyerabend’s idea of an anarchist theory of knowledge.

    My fundamental point is that what you’re arguing is correct in scientific terms – verified information that has not been falsified, but is open to being so – correct? This is not truth, nor should it be argued as such. On the same logic, religion is not science and should not be argued as such. Thus creationism of any sort should not be part of any science education.

    However, it’s interesting that, in physics, speculation is the norm and theoretical physics is a fairly well respected aspect. But, in terms of biology, it all seems (at least publicly) to be much more defensive, the challenge from the religious right appears to have polarised things too much and the theoretical speculation is left to the world of science fiction or non-mainstream work such as that of Robert Anton Wilson and the likes (cf SMI2LE).

    We are a product of evolution, we are trying to describe the petri dish from the inside. What we know may well be all there is to know, but we can’t be certain. Speculating about other possible explanations should not just be the province of religious people and creative writers.

  9. You stated that ‘There are problems with the current theory of evolution’. Would you now retract that statement?

    You could make similar claims about anything proven by science e.g ‘There are problems with the current theory the world is flat’. I deliberately use such an over the top example, because refuting evolution is on the same level. Yes, you could say that you can never know anything to be true, but evolution is as much a fact as the world being flat. Neither can be proven under your definition. I am still open to information to prove to me that the world isn’t flat, but it is unhelpful to everyone to argue that it is not truth.

    The challenge from the religious right has polarised things with evolution. However, even without it, evolution would still be regarded as fact. We are just more loud in saying it. The same as we would be loud about the world being round if there was suddenly a challenge from the religious right that it was flat. How loud we shout it doesn’t change it from being a fact.

    In physics, there is no speculation about the fact of gravity. In biology, there is no speculation about the fact of evolution. There is however speculation about the process of evolution, e.g how important is natural selection, how important is sexual selection, how important are neutral mutations? This speculation is important, and interesting, and is something that I am currently studying. Biologists do speculate, that is why we have jobs 🙂

    Why is it accepting evolution as a fact important? Here are a few examples of fields where taking into account evolution can make a difference:
    – Conservation
    – Vaccination development
    – Drug resistance research
    – Understanding genetic disease
    – Food security
    Without our understanding of evolution, we would not be able to develop as good conservation strategies. Without using evolutionary theory, it can lead to catastrophic consequences. If you are interested, you could read this short article http://www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/genetic-drift-bottleneck-effect-and-the-case-1118

    I may be arguing from a completely different viewpoint to you, but I do argue that the viewpoint you are arguing from is unhelpful. It is also dangerous to state things like ‘There are problems with the current theory of evolution’. A scary amount of people in the US believe exactly that, and unlike with you, they believe that literally. The reason it is dangerous, is because in the US they have serious arguments over whether to teach creationism in schools. That would lead to a serious lack of science education in the USA. That then in turn harms us all, especially as the biological sciences are becoming more and more important as our world changes. It IS helpful to argue about religion using science in this case, because it does cross over, and the religion side of things IS wrong. I would argue that you cannot have an understanding of biology without evolution, it underpins everything.

  10. You know, reading back on that post, and the amount of times I did get that the wrong way round, I’m starting to think my subconscious really does think the world is flat 😉

  11. There are problems with every theory that’s not the mythical theory that explains everything. It doesn’t explain everything! Surely it’s that problem that makes science science and not religion?

    I’d quibble with the comparison with gravity – the fact is that something makes things fall towards the planet. What that is has changed completely over time – Einstein completely changed what gravity was – the effect was the same, but the explanation was completely different.

    Evolution as a process – that mutations in organic beings in some cases catch on and become new types of organic beings – is well established, well verified with no credible falsification. Why this is happening – well there’s more room to theorise – SM12LE (which is one theory that we’re evolving towards something).

    Your final argument scares me about as much as the creationists. To argue that everyone must accept the dominant ideas because, to question them will help the crazies is unacceptable and anti-science. Science and religion are two different things, the former is the extent of what we know at this point and should be taught as such, the latter is a range of stuff written down a long time ago and has nothing to do with science.

    Excessive certainty is dangerous, it’s restrictive and it can restrict truly open scientific investigation. It’s no different to what Darwin himself faced. When I was growing up, Pluto was a planet. Now it’s not. Pluto hasn’t changed, just the way we refer to it. If it had been explained when I was growing up that Pluto appeared to astronomers to be a planet and, upon further and better examination, it no longer appears to be so, it would have been more honest.

    Try saying out loud: “Evolution appears to me, and to most scientists, to offer the best explanation for the development of life on this planet and no better explanation has so far presented itself to me.” You won’t win an argument by saying something must be accepted because it’s true, you win by showing it’s the best explanation there currently is and exposing the logical fallacies of the other side. That works best when the other side is certain they’re right. It works slightly less well when the other side is being deliberately provocative and making a stupid argument for effect.

  12. Well why is it you don’t accept it? What are the problems you see with it? I encourage you to ask your questions, I am happy to respond to any objections you may have about evolution.

    I did specifically say ‘any objection you can make to it can either be refuted or if not then scientists will take it seriously and investigate.’ It is not restrictive to scientific investigation to accept evolution, what would be restrictive is to continue to accept it in the light of new evidence suggesting otherwise. In the same way that it would be restrictive not to accept that the world is round when studying plate tectonics. You could say you are willing to accept evidence showing the world isn’t round, but it really would be ridiculous to go around saying accepting the world is round is restrictive to scientific investigation. Look at your quote in another context ‘The world being round, appears to me, and most scientists, to offer the best explanation for why you can set sail from the UK and end up back where you started’. What is the point in saying that? You may as well just say ‘The world is round’.

    I am happy to expose any logical fallacies from the other side, which I believe I did with your egg example. You stated that science could not answer the question, but I showed it can, it was a logical fallacy from you to assume that the molecular properties of an egg could not lead it to having uses in cooking whilst also being useful to the developing chick.

    So you believe that humans may be evolving towards something? Or all species? What is your evidence for this? The one making the claim must back it up with evidence. There is evidence for evolution by natural selection. There is evidence for evolution by sexual selection. There is evidence that neutral mutations can be important (mutations which have neither a beneficial or negative effect on the organism). I see no evidence that evolution is heading towards a goal, but if you provide some I would be happy to consider it. It is a waste of everyone’s time to propose something, and just sit on the fence without either a) trying to gather evidence for your hypothesis or b) showing what evidence there is.

    I could equally claim that evolution has been caused by fairies directing the process from the Magical Faraway Tree, but that would that add nothing to the discussion unless I had some evidence of a) fairies and b) the Magical Faraway Tree. Would it be useful to spend my time trying to find out if fairies or the Magical Faraway tree have something to do with evolution? No, because there is no evidence that either exist. If some evidence comes to light that one does exist, maybe then it would be useful to spend time looking for their role in evolution. Is it therefore useful to try and find out if a ‘creator’ ‘alien’ ‘other intelligent being’ had something to do with evolution without ANY evidence of their existence?

    There are plenty of debates being had in the theory of evolution, why not learn some more about those rather than discussing claims made without evidence? (I did a google search in SM12LE and found nothing so I’m not too sure what you’re talking about)

    Here are some examples of genuine debates within the field of evolution which I have picked out of this weeks issue of Journal of Evolutionary Biology:
    How did social insects such as bees and ants evolve?
    How are some parasites able to influence the behaviour of their hosts?
    What is the advantages of an insect being specially adapted to a specific plant, rather than being more generalist?

    Scientists should be able to spend their time explaining to people their research (you do pay for them with your taxes), not constantly defending evolution against unsubstantiated attacks. And yes, I include your ‘There are problems with the current theory of evolution’ as an unsubstantiated attack because really you just feel uneasy about Dawkins going around calling a fact a fact.

  13. I could write a long response, but I’m getting bored of this. Tell you what, you can stick to your cosy positivist universe and I’ll keep playing in the anarchic world of free thinking and lack of belief in anything.

    And SMI2LE means “Space Migration Intelligence Life Extension” – the preconditions for getting out of this gravity well and into the cosmos (the first part is conditional on the second and third parts in the theory). Here’s the theory – http://www.rawilsonfans.com/articles/SFR23.htm and here are some contemporary pointers: Space Migration: http://www.virgingalactic.com/ Information Doubling (approaching intelligence squared): http://www.zdnet.com/blog/btl/2010-data-doubling-every-11-hours/4497 Life Extension: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26184891/vp=45651848&#null

  14. What I find interesting is that you’ll stick to your original position without conceding even a little. Very free-thinking.

    And actually, I had a lecturer who spent some of his time researching the theory of panspermia, I actually fail to see how panspermia/evolution have anything to do with each other. Evolution says nothing about the origins of life.

    But anyway, I haven’t gone as far to have read anything about anarchism, but you know, I’ve see the media reports about it, all those scary people smashing windows and wearing black. Life’s too short for me to read up on it, but instead of trying to be neutral I’ll form an opinion based on what the news channels say. Just like you did with Dawkins.

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